Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

Cartier and Roberval led one of the earliest attempts to find a northwest passage to the lucrative Asian trade. Their voyages opened North American exploration and mapped out the principal sites of the future New France, with settlement being the new objective.

Summary of Event

From 1492 to about 1534, the exploration of the New World was almost the exclusive domain of Italian sailors. When England and France contested the Spanish and Portuguese monopolies, they employed Italian explorers. Northwest Passage
Cartier, Jacques
Roberval, Jean-François de La Rocque, sieur de
Francis I (1494-1547)
Cabot, John
Francis I (king of France)
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)

During the 1530’, however, the Italians were replaced by other nationals. John Cabot reported that there were marvelous shoals of fish off the coast of Newfoundland Newfoundland , and word reached the mainland of Europe, prompting fishing boats to brave the hazardous crossings of the North Atlantic to reap the harvest. From these fisheries sprang the beginnings of New France. Exploration and colonization;France of North America

Jacques Cartier went to sea early in his life and became an experienced navigator, being awarded the coveted title of master pilot. He evidently visited the Newfoundland fisheries and voyaged to Brazil. In 1534, Cartier was commissioned by the king of France to head an expedition across the Atlantic in search of a northwest passage to Asia. By the time of Cartier’s first commissioned trip, Francis I had named him captain and pilot for the king. Cartier’s elevated title, as well as his assignment to seek a northwest passage, indicate that the French crown was serious about global exploration.

Politically, French explorations into the Atlantic invited hostile reactions from the colonizers of the Spanish New World and Portuguese Brazil, who, under the earlier terms of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494) claimed exclusive rights to all undiscovered areas of the Western Hemisphere. In the economic sphere, Cartier’s assignment is part of a broader context of international rivalries that were carried over from before 1492. Just as Cabot’s first and second voyages to Newfoundland (1497 and 1498) reflected a strong English desire to gain access to the East Indian spice and Chinese silk trades without passing through foreign intermediaries (traditionally the Italian city-states), Cartier’s goal was more than the discovery of new lands. Francis I viewed a possible northwest passage as a potential path to East Asian wealth. What Cartier accomplished during three voyages between 1534 and 1543, although extremely important for the future development of French settlements in the Saint Lawrence Valley, fell considerably short of this goal.

Setting out on April 20, 1534, from Saint-Malo with two ships, Cartier made landfall on May 10 on an island off the eastern coast of Newfoundland. After exploring the island, he crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, landing on the Gaspé Peninsula. There, upon the pledge that he would return them, he was given two sons of a Huron Hurons chief to take to France. From Gaspé, Cartier sailed north to Anticosti Island. Returning to Newfoundland on August 15, he set sail for home and arrived at Saint-Malo on September 5. Although he had not found a northwest passage, Cartier had explored extensively the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its islands.

His own manuscript accounts of the three voyages he made to the Saint Lawrence region provide an extensive narrative of the way of life of the Hurons living in the region, as well as detailed descriptions of flora and fauna. French views of the North American Indians show the biases of this early period of contact between what Cartier called the “civilized” and “savage” societies. Cartier’s account of the Hurons during his first expedition left at least two particularly revealing signs of future difficulties the French and other European settlers would face. One was his assumption that the indigenous peoples were so simple that they could be “moulded in the way one would wish.” A second came on July 24, 1534, when his party raised a wooden cross with an added coat of arms marked with the words “Long Live the King of France!” Huron dismay at the French expectation of immediate respect for the symbols of the French state and religion turned into a protest, led by the chief Donnacona. Donnacona met Cartier again under different terms at the end of Cartier’s second voyage, when the French forced him and several other American Indians to accompany them as “specimens” on their return to Francis I’s court.

As a result of Cartier’s favorable reports, French leaders began to think of planting outposts of the kingdom in these new lands. By royal command, the admiral of France commissioned Cartier commander in chief of a second expedition of three ships, which was to sail beyond Newfoundland and discover and occupy lands for France. The little flotilla left Saint-Malo on May 19, 1535. This time, the crossing was imperiled by severe storms, but Cartier reached Blanc Sablon, Newfoundland, on July 15; not until July 26, however, did all three ships assemble there. He had with him the two American Indian boys he had taken from Gaspé the previous year. They had learned to speak French and told him of the great river that poured into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a river he would travel, the first time a European had done so.

As Cartier progressed up the St. Lawrence River, piloted by his two Huron guides, he was welcomed by Indians from the shore. Passing the Island of Orleans, in mid-September, he came to the tribal village of Stadacona (now Quebec City). There he was greeted by Donnacona, who welcomed the return of his two sons but tried to dissuade Cartier from further ascending the river. Donnacona feared the loss of his French ally to the chief of Hochelaga, but ambition and curiosity drove the Frenchman on. He set out on September 19 with the smallest of his vessels, a pinnace, and on October 2 came to Hochelaga (now Montreal, Canada), the metropolis of the North American Indians on the St. Lawrence River. Here the Hurons feasted Cartier and tempted him with hints of a rich kingdom to the west called Saguenay.

From the top of Mont Royal, however, Cartier saw that the rapids beyond blocked further travel inland, and he returned to Stadacona, above which his men had built a fort. There they wintered rather than risk an unseasonable Atlantic passage. Autumnal brilliance gave way to months of ice and deep snow. Scurvy became rampant but was conquered with an Indian bark remedy.

Musing on the fabled riches of Saguenay, Cartier and his men resorted to treachery. In May of 1536, they kidnapped Donnacona and four other Hurons as evidence to persuade King Francis that further exploration would be profitable. With five other American Indians, who apparently went without force, they set sail for France on May 6. As they came to Newfoundland and passed a group of islands they had named St. Peter’s Islands, Cartier’s crew realized they were not alone: Boats from France’s northwestern seacoast (Brittany) had arrived and begun exploiting the rich North American fishing grounds. On July 15, Cartier was back at Saint-Malo.

From this point on, concern for French settlements, combined with hopes that riches could be gained from finding and conquering Saguenay, tended to replace Francis’s original aim of sending explorers to find a northwest passage.

The king, impressed by Cartier’s Huron captives, his samples of ores that promised diamonds and gold, and the reports of a land of spices and other abundant resources, determined to develop a colony in the New World—a New France. War between France and Spain interfered with his plans until 1538. Then followed three years of elaborate preparations and diplomatic difficulties. In 1540, Cartier received a royal commission to help lead the undertaking with a grant from the treasury. However, in January, 1541, Jean-François de La Rocque, sieur de Roberval, was given command of the venture, and Cartier’s authority could be exerted only in Roberval’s absence.

While plans were being drawn up, France’s main rival, Charles V, had been informed by the cardinal of Toledo that Francis I was preparing a new fleet for New World exploration and that actions should be taken to thwart its movements. One action suggested was to organize a spy network, including close observation of the port of Saint-Malo. Eventually, two Spanish ships did try, unsuccessfully, to track the French ships sent on the third Cartier mission.

By the spring of 1541, Cartier had procured and equipped five vessels, and on May 23, he sailed from Saint-Malo on his third voyage. Roberval was to follow later. Settlement was now the main aim, although Christian missionary efforts and the search for Saguenay were also important objectives. After a rough Atlantic crossing, the expedition entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then proceeded up the river, arriving at Stadacona on August 23. Welcomed by the Hurons despite his earlier kidnapping exploits, Cartier proceeded to settle his colonists beyond Quebec at Cape Rouge for an easier approach to Saguenay. Two of his vessels were sent home with news and samples of spurious minerals. They reached Saint-Malo on October 3. Leaving Vicomte de Beaupré in command, Cartier proceeded to Hochelaga and explored the rapids above it. The events of the winter of 1541-1542 are unknown, except for sailors’ gossip later of American Indian attacks, scurvy, and misery.

On April 16, 1542, Roberval, with three ships and perhaps two hundred colonists, sailed from La Rochelle for New France. His delay in leaving to join Cartier had been much longer than he had expected. Part of the problem was the difficulties encountered in acquiring adequate armaments for what had become as much a military mission as a voyage for exploration. In fact, spies for Portugal and Spain had reported that Roberval was prepared to enter Atlantic waters as a pirate and urged the closure of all ports he might try to enter. The ambassador of the English king Henry VIII reported that the French king was uncertain as to Roberval’s intentions.

Whatever the circumstances of the splitting of command between Cartier and Roberval, on June 7, 1542, the follow-up expedition entered the harbor of what is now St. John’, Newfoundland.

However, the winter in Canada had been too much for Cartier, and he had abandoned the settlement at Cape Rouge in June and struck out for Newfoundland. At St. John’, he found Roberval’s reinforcements. In spite of Roberval’s order, he slipped out into the Atlantic and returned to Saint-Malo.


The end of Cartier’s third voyage marked the effective conclusion of his career as a sea captain and explorer. As for Roberval, he pushed on, ascended the St. Lawrence, and rebuilt Cartier’s abandoned settlement. He sent two ships home for reinforcements in September. A difficult winter followed, in which Roberval was forced to resort to drastic disciplinary measures to maintain order. In June, 1543, Roberval began his search for the riches of Saguenay, but he stopped when his boat was wrecked.

By mid-September, 1543, Roberval was back in France, so he probably had given up the settlement in New France by late July. His return marked the end of the first attempt of the French to settle Canada.

Cartier had revolutionized cartographic knowledge by his well-recorded findings, but for the moment neither his nor Roberval’s exploits were promising enough to overcome France’s European preoccupations.

Further Reading

  • Biggar, H. P. Collection of Documents Relating to Jacques Cartier and the Sieur de Roberval. Publications of the Public Archives of Canada 14. Ottawa: Canadian Public Archives, 1930. Combined with the Cartier volume, this collection provides all available information on the voyage.
  • Cartier, Jacques. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1993. A new edition of Cartier’s book that attempts to correct misinformation stemming from the earlier translation by H. P. Biggar.
  • Coulter, Tony. Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, and the Explorers of Canada. New York: Chelsea House, 1993. Brief monograph, geared to younger readers but still informative, detailing the exploration of Canada by the French.
  • Francis, R. Douglas, Richard Jones, and Donald B. Smith. Origins: Canadian History to Confederation. 5th ed. Scarborough, Canada: Nelson Canada, 2004. Textbook on early Canadian history that discusses the cultures and lifestyles of Canadian Indians and Cartier’s encounters with them.
  • Lehane, Brendan. The Northwest Passage. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981. A readable, well-illustrated general history of the long search for the Northwest Passage, placing the significance of Cartier’s attempts in broad perspective.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America. Vol. 2. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Summarizes the exploits of Cartier and Roberval in considerable detail. Fine scholarship, detailed bibliographical commentary, and attractive narration.

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

June 24, 1497-May, 1498: Cabot’s Voyages

Early 16th cent.: Rise of the Fur Trade

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

June 7, 1576-July, 1578: Frobisher’s Voyages

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company